Some of you may know that the Washington State Legislature is currently considering a bill that would allow same-sex couples to marry. It appears that supporters have the necessary votes and the Governor has stated that she will sign the legislation. After that there’s the possibility of a referendum, which is a vote of the people, to consider affirming or repealing the statute. Opponents of access to marriage would have to gather signatures to place a referendum on the ballot.
What all this means is that there is a lot of discussion/debate about marriage in Washington State just now. And as is typically the case, the relationship between marriage and children is central to the arguments on both sides. This is something I’ve written about before but as it is back in the news, I thought I’d revisit it briefly.
For starters, notice that both sides in the debate agree that marriage is good for children. You may recall that I myself am doubtful of this point. But let’s put that to one side for now. (If anyone wants to discuss it, we certainly can. You can also find other references to this point on the blog, starting with the earlier post I linked to.)
Here’s how the “marriage is good for children” argument plays out for those seeking access to marriage: There are many children being raised by lesbian and gay parents in Washington State. (Cite to census data and state law recognizing two legal parents of the same sex.) If marriage is beneficial to children (and remember that’s the starting assumption) then denying access to marry disadvantages these children. What can justify this? How can the state fail to extend marriage to afford these children the same benefits that other children already have?
Those defending the traditional restrictions on marriage cannot really argue that marriage is irrelevant to children. Indeed, the core of their argument is all about marriage as being the proper place for the conception and rearing of children. It has to be that because the one distinctive feature of marriages between different sex couples as opposed to same-sex couples is the potential for unassisted procreation.
So after agreeing that marriage is good for children, how do you argue that excluding same-sex couples is nevertheless okay? You can see that it is a good deal harder to do when you’ve focused on the kids. Whatever you can say about whether being lesbian/gay is a choice, you cannot say that being the child of lesbian or gay parents is a choice.
That means that at best, the focus shifts to whether there is some cost to other children that would be incurred were the children of lesbian and gay parents protected. It turns out to be hard to articulate such a cost. State Senator Cheryl Pflug, a Republican, addressed this is a very general way when endorsed the marriage access bill and noted:
I don’t feel diminished when another human being is allowed to exercise the same rights that I enjoy. I would feel diminished if I voted to deny others the right to exercise those same rights and freedoms.
As this quote suggests, the challenge for the forces opposing the legislation is to explain why the rights of heterosexuals–parents or not–would be diminished if the rights of lesbians and gay men were expanded. I think they need to make this into a zero-sum game.
This takes me back to the argument about kids. If marriage is in and of itself good for kids, then it isn’t a zero-sum game. More marriages are better for more kids. The good accrues not just to those new people being allowed to marry but to society generally. Marriage isn’t a scarce commodity, such that more for you means less for me. It turns out arguing that marriage is good for kids but shouldn’t be extended to this group of kids’ parents becomes very difficult.
In every state where marriage has been debated, there have been dramatic moments when some child stands up and says “My parents are lesbians or gay men and they’d like to get married. Please let my parents get married.” These are the moments you can see the “marriage is good for kids” argument played out in its purest form. As I think about it, I’ve never seen anyone offer a really good answer to these kids, which is a testament to the strength of the argument, I think. After all, what can you say?